Mallard Creek quarterback James Smith walked off the field at N.C. State after leading his team to a 49-6 win against Greensboro Page on Saturday. He then paused for a second before entering a tunnel heading toward a media interview room.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Smith, smiling after the Mavericks won their third consecutive N.C. 4AA championship. “I’m just at a loss for words right now.
“This is what we started working for in the springtime, in the summertime. Through all the adversity, this is what we worked for.”
Smith did Saturday what he’s always done – lead his team. He completed 11 of 18 passes for 172 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed for 74 yards on 13 carries and scored a touchdown. Only Darnell Walker (8 carries, 114) had more rushing yards.
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Smith won his third straight 4A state championship ring, and among Mecklenburg County quarterbacks only former Independence star Chris Leak had done that. You can make a strong argument that Chris Leak is the best quarterback to ever play high school football in North Carolina.
“I know there’s a lot of good players in North Carolina,” Mallard Creek coach Mike Palmieri said, “a bunch of four-star and five-star recruits, but (Smith is) the best, the best football player in the state of North Carolina, bar none.
“It’s his leadership, not just on the field but off the field, in the locker room, in the classroom, in the building. That’s the last time someone is going to wear that (No. 7) jersey as long as I’m coach here. He’s a kid we’ll miss dearly. You can’t win without great leadership.”
Smith was thrust into the spotlight as a sophomore in Mallard Creek’s fifth game in 2013. Starter Emiere Scaife injured his ankle on the game’s third play against West Charlotte. Smith came in and ran for two touchdowns and threw for two. Mallard Creek won 59-0.
Smith went on to lead his team to an unbeaten season and a state championship. In a 59-21 win against Wake Forest in the 2013 state final, Smith was named his team’s offensive MVP after throwing three touchdowns.
In 2014, he ran for 186 yards and three touchdowns and threw for 108 yards in a 25-14 win against Wake Forest in the state championship. He was named championship MVP.
Saturday, he was named MVP again. His career record as a starter is 41-3.
“When they put me in as a sophomore,” Smith said, “I had to keep my composure. It’s the position I’m put in as a quarterback. You have to stay cool, calm and composed.”
Smith’s career is filled with big plays at big moments, like leading his team on a must-have, 86-yard drive to force overtime in the state semifinals last week at East Forsyth. He has a strong arm and can make all the throws. If Smith was 6-foot-2 instead of about 5-foot-10, he would be one of those five-star recruits his coach is talking about.
For college, Smith said he’ll chose between Army, Campbell, Gardner-Webb, N.C. A&T and Navy. He said likes Navy and Gardner-Webb the most. After watching his career, which included 3,346 yards passing and 35 touchdowns this season – plus rushing for 1,197 and 18 touchdowns – I believe you place Smith up on the Mount Rushmore of Mecklenburg County quarterbacks.
Put him there with Leak, Joe Cox and Mark Maye – all of Independence.
“I know there’s a lot of great players in the history of North Carolina football,” Palmieri said, “but nobody’s played in bigger games on a bigger stage and against bigger competition that this guy right here.”
Palmieri looked at Smith, and Smith just had the biggest smile. Just like a champion should.